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Lezgi dialects. Why bother?

May 7, 2009

Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve been trying to deal with the Standard Literary Lezgi, the kind of normative language used in school instruction and in official publications (and also in books, newspapers etc.).  However, as with any other language, Standard Literary Lezgi is not the only form of Lezgi in existence and worthy of preservation.

All around the Lezgi speech area, people use different varieties of Lezgi in their daily life. Sometimes those varieties differ considerably from the Standard language, and sometimes their speakers are not well-acquainted with the Standard at all. This variety is a good thing, as each dialect may teach us a thing or two about the Lezgi language in general (eg. by preserving words or grammatical structures lost in standard Lezgi, or by evolving in interesting directions or…). It is, thus, quite enlightening to take a look at the dialects as well.

The problem is that as even resources for Standard Literary Lezgi can be quite hard to come by, there’s serious shortage of information regarding the dialects. In my opinion, it is especially the Lezgi dialects spoken in Azerbaijan that are underresearched. One of my goals for the future would be to make an attempt at addressing this situation. In other words I am willing (and going to) to publish on this blog or elsewhere all the information on Lezgi dialects that I can gather (a request directed at Lezgi speakers: please, help me if you can, by telling me about your native version of Lezgi).

I’ll start soon(ish) by giving a bit of our attention to Lezgi as spoken in Yargun (a Lezgi-speaking village in Northern Azerbaijan; the official name of the village is actually Xazry). I’ll be using the information kindly provided by Ayten Babaliyeva, a Lezgi linguist now studying and working in France (merci beaucoup!). Yargun Lezgi is both her native dialect and the subject of her thesis. All I do  is basically translating her work from French and putting extracts from it on the web.

Until next time, then.

Verbs weak and strong

May 6, 2009

I’m going to talk about Lezgi verbs in the next couple of entries, so let’s start from the basics.

Lezgi verbs can be divided into two groups: so-called “strong” and “weak” verbs. The latter are much more numerous and in fact new weak verbs can be formed any time (weak verbs are thus an open class). What is the difference between them and what consequences does it have?

For starters, the strong verbs have a thematic vowel while the weak verbs don’t. Thematic vowel is stressed and forms the three verb stems (called Masdar, Imperfective and Aorist; each of them may have a different vowel) from which all the other verbal forms are made. As the weak verbs have no thematic vowel they are stressed on the stem itself, which stays the same in Masdar, Imperfective and Aorist forms.

Examples (pay close attention; SV – strong verb; WV – weak verb):

kisun (WV) ‘fall asleep’

base: kis
Masdar: kisun (base + Masdar ending for WV: -un) 
Imperfective: kisiz (base + Imperf ending for WV: -iz)
Aorist: kisna (base + Aorist ending for WV: -na)

fin (SV) ‘go’

base: f
Masdar: fin (base + vowel: -i + Masdar ending for SV: -n) 
Imperfective: fiz (base + vowel: -i + Imperf ending for SV: -z)
Aorist: fena (base + vowel: e + Aorist ending for SV: -na)

raxun (SV) ‘talk’

base: rax
Masdar: raxun (base + vowel: -u + Masdar ending for SV: -n) 
Imperfective: raxaz (base + vowel: -a + Imperf ending for SV: -z)
Aorist: raxana (base + vowel: -a + Aorist ending for SV: -na)

As you can see, the thematic vowels differ both between verbs and between stems of one strong verb.  In fact, they’re unpredictable, you have to learn them by heart for every strong verb (they are affected by vowel harmony, which limits the choices, but we’ll talk about it later). Fortunately, as we’ve said, there’s only limited number of strong verbs.

Lezgi syntax trivia. Subjects and participles.

May 3, 2009

Now that I’m done with “reading lezgi” I thought I’d share with you two bits of info on Lezgi syntax (ie. sentence-forming). Or rather not, I’ll just show you some things, withholding any comments until you ask some questions.

I. The subject (or the doer/experiencer).

Руш кIвализ хтана.  The girl returned home.
Гада кIвализ хтанач. The boy didn’t return home.
Гада кIвале авач. The boy is not home.
Рушаз гада акуна. The girl saw the boy.
Гададиз руш акунач. The boy didn’t saw the girl.
Бубади гада кIвализ ракъурна. Father sent the boy home.
Гадади рушаз ич гана. The boy gave the apple to the girl.
Руша гададиз ич ганач. The girl didn’t give the apple to the boy.

II. Participles. Do you know any other language which makes the following possible?

рушаз ич гайи гада – the boy who gave the apple to the girl
гадади ич гайи руш – the girl whom the boy gave the apple
гадади рушаз гайи ич – the apple which was given by the boy to the girl

Reading Lezgi. Step 4.2 The twin signs.

May 3, 2009

Okay, so the time has come to take the last step. Previously we talked a bit about the three ‘modifier’ signs present in Lezgi orthography and we breezed through the digraphs / combinations employing one of them, the ‘I’ sign aka palochka.

Now let me tell you a thing about the two modifier signs that we are left with – ъ and ь. These are vestiges of the Russian Cyrillic orthography where they are known as, respectively, ‘hard sign’ and ‘soft sign’. I won’t go into detail on how do they function in Russian, focusing exclusively on their role in Lezgi.

So, we’ve already seen that in Lezgi, the ‘hard sign’ (ъ), can stand on its own (spelling the so-called glottal stop, the sound the Cockneys make instead of syllable-final ‘t’). Now lets take a look on ъ as a part of digraphs/letter combinations. Relax, there are only three of them:

гъ къ хъ

гъ (gh) is like Scottish ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ but voiced. Or like an Arabic غ sound. Or, in other words, very similar to the way Parisians pronounce their ‘r’s.

къ (q) is like Arabic ق. If that tells you nothing, think of a ‘k’ pronounced further back in the throat and you’re there.

хъ (qh) is much like къ (q) but it is aspirated. That is, a breath of air follows the throaty ‘k’. You may recall that the aspirated/not-aspirated distinction is somewhat important in Lezgi, yet not reflected in writing. Well, къ and хъ are the only pair of sounds where that difference is written down.


гъалатI ghalat’ – mistake
гъвечIи ghwech’i – little, younger
гъед ghed – fish; star
гъил ghil – hand
ягъун jaghun – to hit, to strike
къав qaw – roof
къад qad – twenty
къалурун qalurun – to show, to demonstrate
къацу qacu – green
къачун qachun – to take, to catch
къван qwan – stone
къец qec – outside
къе qe – today
ракъурун raqurun – to send
хъвер qhwer – laughter, smile
хъел qhel – anger

Адак хъел ква adak qhel kwa – he’s angry (lit. anger is under him)
хъипи qhipi – yellow
хъсан qhsan – good
хъун qhun – to drink

за яд хъвазва za jad qhwazwa – I am drinking water
ва яд хъвада wa jad qhwada – you’ll drink water or you drink water (habitually)
ада яд хъвана ada jad qhwana – he drank water
яд хъухъ jad qhuqh – drink water!

Okay, enough of this, let’s move on. The last remaining modifier sign is ‘ь’ which, like ‘I’, cannot stand on its own in Lezgi. The four combinations:

уь кь хь гь

уь (y) is a vowel, pronounced like German or Azerbaijani ü (an ‘i’ with rounded lips).

кь (q’) is to къ (q) what кI (k’) is to к (k). In other words, it is both throaty and glottalised.

хь (xh) is like a crossover between German ch in ‘Bach’ and German ch in ‘ich’. It’s a bit like Scottish ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ but there’s less friction. Remember how I told you to pronounce Lezgi x very throaty? The need to make it different from the softer xь was the reason.

гь (h), coming last, is straightforward, as it is a plain English ‘h’.


гьа ha – that one
гьазур hazur – ready
гьал hal – state (of things)
гьикI hik’ – how?

ви гьалар гьикI я?  vi halar hik’ ja? – how are you?
гьина hina – where?
гьич hich – at all
гьуьрмет hyrmet – respect
гьялун haelun – to solve
гьахъ haqh – truth
гьекь heq’ – sweat
кьабулун q’abulun – to accept
кьак q’ak – syphilis
кьарай q’araj – patience
кьатI q’at’ – part, piece
кьван q’wan – that much, (to) that degree, as much as
кьвед q’wed – two
кьев q’ew – wives of the same husband with relation to each other
кьел q’el – salt
уьгьу yhy – cough
уьлгуьч ylgych – razor
уьмуьр ymyr – life
хьел xhel – arrow
хьи xhi – that, so that
хьун xhun – to become, to be
гьатун hatun – to fall upon, to get
гъавурда гьатун ghawurda hatun – to understand

зун ви гафрин гъавурда гьатизва(ч) zun wi gafrin ghawurda hatizwa(ch)
– I (don’t) understand your words

Okay, so we’re now done with the alphabet and writing conventions. If there’s still anything unclear, please let me know. I will try go back to the previous lessons to review and improve them.

Now, what do you want to have next?

Reading Lezgi – Step 4.1. Meet the palochka.

April 20, 2009

Now that we’ve covered the whole alphabet let’s turn our attention to digraphs (or two-letter combinations signifying one sound). Lezgi has many of those because it has more sounds than Russian, for which the Russian Cyrillic script was originally designed.

Not counting the в /w/ (which we’ve already met – go back a bit and read once more how it behaves after a consonant), Lezgi has three… , let’s say, ‘modifier symbols’  – I, ъ, ь . In contrast to the English ‘h’ which is a letter of its own apart from forming digraphs (I’m talking about ‘ph’, ‘th’, ‘ch’ and ‘sh’, and to stretch things a bit ‘gh’, ‘kh’ and ‘zh’ as well), those three are barely (ъ) or not at all (two others)  independent letters.

We’ve already met ъ /’/ in its role as a letter, but we’ll talk about its combo-making abilities a bit later.

For now – let’s meet palochka,  everybody! ‘Palochka’ is not a Russian folk dance, but a word (it means literally ‘little stick’) for a special symbol designed for use in orthographies of several Caucasian languages. It looks (almost) like I, but as you’ll find out, because of technology constraints the proper palochka is almost never used, I, l, 1, or ! being substituted for it on the web. I’ll use I

In standard Lezgi, palochka is used in the following letter combinations (remember, it’s not a letter in Lezgi):

пI тI кI цI чI

These all mark so-called ejective consonant. You pronounce them like you would pronounce their regular equivalent except that you stop the airflow through your glottis (that is, you make a glottal stop). The resulting sounds sounds to me as if it was stopped in the mouth for a split-second and then forcefully released. Anyway, don’t worry, they are quite easy to learn.

кичIе – to be afraid (a very irregular verb)
кIан – to love / like / want (another very irregular verb)
кIвал – house, home
пIуз – lip
тIал – pain
тIвар – name
балкIан – horse
цIап – horse-shit
цIай – fire
чIал – language
-тIа – if (suffixed)
тIимил – a bit

And now let’s see if you can translate the following:

Зи тIвар Петр я.
Ваз Лезги чIал чидани?
Заз Лезги чIал са тIимил чида.
Заз вун кIанда, вазни зун кIандани?

КичIе жемир, чан хва – Don’t worry, dear son.

And we’ll finish for now with this lovely proverb:
БалкIан кIандай цIап такIан. – loves the horse but hates the horseshit

This post may be expanded, I’ll let you know.

Reading Lezgi – Step 3.3

April 11, 2009

It’s the time to collect the leftovers – that is the remaining single letters of the Lezgi alphabet. Later we’ll proceed to step 4 – the digraphs.

Here’s what’s left in store: Жж Чч Цц Шш Щщ Фф  ъ

Фф is, plain and simple, /f/. Just associate the letter with Greek ‘phi’ and you got it.

гаф – word
фикир – thought
фу – bread
фин – to go, going
физва – is going
фида – will go
фена – went
фур – hole

Чч – this one is English /ch/. It comes in aspirated and unaspirated variants, which are not differentiated in writing.

чай – tea
заз чида – I know
чам – bent
чам – (unasp.) bridesgroom
чан – (unasp.) soul, life; dear
четин – difficult
-ч – negation suffix (this becomes /-sh/ in some dialects):

Зи буба Бакудай хтанач – My father didn’t return from Baku.
Ина чай авач – There’s no tea here
Заз чидач – I don’t know

Шш is English /sh/

шак – doubt
ширин – sweet
шаз – last year
шумуд – how many?
туш – is not (negation of я)
зун Лезги туш – I am not Lezgi

Цц is /ts/ said as one sound. Like it has aspirated and unaspirated variants.

цав – sky
цал – wall
циф – cloud
яц – bull

Жж – depending on the dialect and the origin of a particular word it can be pronounced both as /j/ and /zh/ (‘s’ in ‘measure’). In some dialects only the latter pronunciation occurs.

жаваб – answer
жеда – will be, will become
жемят – society; people
жив – snow
жанавур – wolf
жув – myself; yourself
жумарт – generous, noble

Щщ occurs in Russian loans only, where it stands for /shch/ sound combo.

ъ – the use of this one marks a significant departure from Russian orthographic conventions. In Lezgi ъ, apart from its usage in many digraphs (see Part 4), stands for a glottal stop, ie. the sound in the middle of ‘uh-huh’ or in the Cockney pronunciation of ‘city’. It’s never written word-initially.

ваъ – no

Reading Lezgi – Step 3.2

April 11, 2009

Slowly but surely moving forward we approach “y and its family”, or the fossils of Russian orthography carried over to Lezgi. Let’s start.

Йй is /y/ or the first sound in ‘yet’. Because of the peculiar characteristics of Russian (and Lezgi) Cyrillic (about which we’ll talk later in this post) й occurs very rarely at the beginning of the word, and when it does it is followed by the и or уь (that’s a letter we’ll learn about later).

йирф – a kind of flat shovel
йис – year
йиф – night
йифиз – at night

Now, let’s talk about a word-final й having some very interesting properties:

a) in verbs, adding й it “moves the time backwards”:

Буба аниз фена.  = Father went there.
Буба аниз фенай. = Father had gone there.
Ина са кас ава. = There is a man here.
Ина са кас авай. = There was a man here.

b) the forms with й are used in relative clauses:

ина авай кас – the man who is here (lit. here-being-man)

c) with nouns, й  forms the lative cases which express the notion of moving away from something:

адак – under him/it
адакай – from under him/it (or, ‘about him’)
столдал – on the table
столдалай – from the table
Зи буба Бакуда ава  – my father is in Baku
Зи биба Бакудай атанва – my father has come from Baku

You may remember that at the beginning of the word, or immediately after another the letter e actually sounds /ye/. This weird behaviour is a leftover from the Russian Cyrillic system which has separate letters for “y+vowel” combinations. e is one of those. Before we go further, stop, and ask yourself “how do you spell an actual /e/ at the beginning of the word”?

Well, here’s how:

Ээ is always an /e/. It’s used quite rarely in Lezgi, always coming at the beginning of a word:

эвел – beginning
эвела – at the beginning, at first
эгер – if, in case that
экв – light, illumination, dawn
экзамен – exam
экран – screen
эрк – a close relationship between people who can rely on each other
эски – old (of things)
эхир – end

Let’s now review the remaining letters for y+vowel combinations:

Ёё stands for /yo/ and is barely used in Lezgi. No wonder – Lezgi doesn’t have /o/ sound in native words, remember?

ёлка – new year’s tree (not that it’s connected to Lezgi culture, but it’s just about the only word starting with ё listed in dictionaries).

Юю is read /yu/

юбка – skirt
юзун – to move
юлдаш – friend, comrade
юмор – humour
уюн – trick

Яя is a bit tricky as it has two very different pronunciations. At the beginning of a word or after a vowel it is pronounced /ya/:

аял – child
яб – ear
яд – water
як – meat
ял – breath
яр – loved one; the 15-day period starting from 21 March
яран сувар – the spring festival marking the start of the new year

я on its own means ‘is/am/are’. Now, we’ve already encountered ава ‘is/am/are’ haven’t we? The point is я is used in ‘x is y’ sense, whereas ава comes to play when you talk about ‘being somewhere’:

Зун Лезги я. = I am Lezgi.
Зун ина ава. = I am here.

Now, when я comes between consonants, it’s read /ae/ like the vowel in ‘cat’:

лянет – curse
мяден – natural resource deposit
няни – evening
няс – ill-fated; ill-willed
сят – hour; watch, clock

What to read?

March 25, 2009

One of the diffuculties with learning languages like Lezgi is the scarcity of reading material available.
Fortunately, the times are changing and more and more information can be found online.
In particular, you can now read Lezgi Gazet, the Lezgi-language newspaper printed in Maxachkala. Believe it or not, but they’ve run a story about me some time ago.
Also, there are discussions in Lezgi on some webfora (the main language of communication there being Russian): Sharvili, LezgiWarez and DGU. The first of these hosts a number of Lezgi-themed e-books, the last is hosted by Daghestani National University and is a good place to meet Daghestanis of all ethnic backgrounds.

How to read Lezgi – Step 3.1

March 24, 2009

After a longish break another six-pack of letters is coming up.  The 0.1 is here because for a while we are going to move forward in shorter installments (less examples, for example). On the other hand – your work gets harder as the letters will look less familiar.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

Бб, Гг, Дд, Зз, Ии, Лл (here arranged alphabetically)

Бб is easy but dangerous. The easiness is in that it is pronounced /b/ as you’d perhaps expect from its shape. The danger lies in that it’s not that difficult to confuse б /b/ with  в /w/ which we met earlier.

буба /buba/ means “father”
абур /abur/ means “those” or “they”
хабар /xabar/ – news, information

Ии is the only vowel for today, an /i/ (maybe a bit closer to ‘ee’ in ‘feet’ than ‘i’ in ‘fit’).

иви /iwi/ – blood
иеси /iyesi/ – host, owner, proprietor
им – this, this one
ибур – these, these ones
ина – here
ви  – your (sg.)
-ни /-ni/ – question particle for yes/no questions; attached to the end of word you ask about, you can think of it as “is-it?/does-it?”; in pronunciation it often shortens to /n/ sound, or, even further, to nasalisation of the preceding vowel.

A question for transcription and translation, just to make sure everything is clear by now:
Ви буба ина авани?
A bonus challenge: do you know how to answer affirmatively?

Дд stands for /d/. Try connecting it in mind with the Greek delta.

диде – mother
дах – ‘daddy’, or ‘elder brother’
дуст – friend
мад  – yet, another one, next one

Гг has an even more transparent Greek connection. It’s a gamma, hence a /g/.

гада – boy
гун – to give; giving
гана – gave (past tense form)
вугун /wugun/ – to give (for a given time or purpose)
гур – grave

Зз looks a bit like a 3, but is pronounced /z/

зун – I, me
за – I (subject in transitive sentences)
заз – to me (dative)
зи – my
зурба – very big, great
гузва – gives, is giving (also for other persons)
гуда – will give

And now comes the trick. What can you make of the following sentences (apart from that they’re silly) in terms of Lezgi grammar? Any observations?

Зи буба ви бубадиз атана.
Ви бубади зи бубадиз хабар гана.
Зи бубади заз хабар гузва.
За зи дустуниз хабар гуда.
Зи дустуни ваз хабар гуда.
Ва ви дахаз хабар гуда.

Лл listed last, sounds like /l/.

It lets us to introduce a very productive suffix:
-вал /-wal/ creates abstract nouns

стхавал – brotherhood
дидевал – motherhood
садвал – unity (one-ness)

That would be all for today, as always I wait impatiently for your feedback, but right now we can proudly go from the Л to the Е to the З to the Г to the И.

ЛЕЗГИ! Yes, you should now be able to spell and read the name of the language and nation.